MUSKEGON, Mich. – On Veteran’s Day we honor the men and women who served our country. As we celebrate our Veterans, it can be difficult to comprehend the number of veterans waiting for things like compensation, medical help, or even acknowledgement from the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Like many, a U.S. Air Force Vietnam Veteran stationed in Thailand, who now lives in Muskegon, waits.
Since the U.S. government admitted agent orange poisoned thousands of our troops overseas, the VA’s agent orange caseload results in about one in six disability checks.
The VA, though inundated, continues to be scrutinized for the years of blatant wait time many veterans face. The department is being investigated this month by the Washington Post for the VA Secretary’s allegedly false claims of firing five dozen people for manipulating data.
Regardless, Staff Sergeant Frankie Craig’s case is no different: he’s been waiting three years now for any compensation to help him pay off just some of his recent surgeries.
Back in the day, Craig was not one to wait around. He enlisted in the Air Force fresh out of high school when he was 17-years-old.
“Glad I served, I enjoyed my time when I was in,” said Craig.
But during his seven years of service, and the 30 months he spent stationed on the Royal Thai Air Force bases in Thailand, Craig never heard two little words.
“I didn’t know anything about this agent orange stuff,” he said.
Agent orange, the chemical he said was sprayed just 50 meters away from where he lived: now the two words haunting him today.
“I have overwhelming medical bills, the last surgery I had last month was $50,000 and I’ve got to pay my 20 percent of it ‘cause I’m on Medicare,” said Craig.
Craig lives off of Social Security and suffers a long list of serious medical conditions he said are connected to his agent orange exposure.
“For the ischemic heart condition and cardiomyopathy and the sleep apnea and the more serious things, they (the VA) just keep denying me and telling me no, and you have to wait,” Craig said.
But since he reached out to the VA for help in March of 2012, he has waited months, even a year at a time, only to receive mailed denials. For example, one letter from the VA that wrote the department cannot compensate him for 10 serious conditions, because they claimed they are not connected to his service. The most shocking of the 10 conditions denied for compensation was Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
“I can’t believe it,” said Craig.
Craig showed FOX 17 the three years of paperwork he submitted to the VA collecting dust: letters, documents, statements of appeal; all evidence documented in his VA paperwork.
“The (VA was) sending me little notes about three months saying we’re working on your case; I don’t even get that anymore from them,” said Craig.
“It’s just like you don’t exist, they’re just waiting for you to die so that they can forget about you.”
Yet research shows, U.S.A.F. veterans who served on the Royal Thai Air Force bases near its perimeter, between 1961 and 1975, may have been exposed to herbicides, including agent orange.
Recalling his days in the service, Craig said, “I asked a sergeant one time what are they doing, are they crop spraying or whatever? He says, ‘no they’re just killing off the jungle.”
Craig showed FOX 17 a map of the RTAF base where he lived in Korat, Thailand. It showed a red line marking the base perimeter, and then a blue line marking the chemical overspray, about 500 meters in from the perimeter. Craig said he lived in his “hooch” right in the middle of it, about 50 meters in from the perimeter.
Even his clothes were washed there, outside of his hooch.
Looking at pictures of his three youngest children of five, Craig said, “They all had problems when they were born. But my first marriage I had two daughters and they were fine, no problems.”
His youngest three were each born with serious health problems that were detailed in yet another letter to the VA.
“It’s obvious, I was there for two and a half years all together, and during that not even once I was sprayed? I don’t believe that,” he said.
Back in August, FOX 17 reached out to Congressman Bill Huizenga’s office. Then, Oct. 8 in Detroit, Craig finally had a video conference with a judge for his case.
“I left there feeling a little bit hopeful,” said Craig.
On Huizenga’s behalf, Communications Director Brian Patrick gave FOX 17 this statement:
“Making sure West Michigan veterans get the treatment they deserve is a top priority for Congressman Huizenga. Our office has been able to successfully expedite Staff Sergeant Craig’s case through the VA so he will see faster results. Unfortunately, far too many veterans are experiencing difficulties in receiving a timely response from the VA. If you have a family member or know a veteran who is having trouble with the VA, please call Congressman Huizenga’s office in Grandville at (616) 570-0917.”
For now, Craig, who jumped into the military as soon as he could, continues to sit home and wait.
“Huizenga, FOX 17 News, put a little push in there and kind of sped things up for me which I appreciate, but you know it could take a long time: five, six, seven years before you can get a complete answer out of anybody,” Craig said.
The judge in Craig’s Detroit hearing told Craig that he will receive a decision in two to three months.
Craig has been calling for an update and has not heard anything back yet. Stay with FOX 17 for an update.
If you, or any other veteran, experience a long wait-time for help through the VA call Congressman Huizenga’s office in Grandville at (616) 570-0917.
You can learn different ways to file a claim with the VA here on their website.
Watch Craig's full story on FOX 17 News at 10 p.m. Wednesday.